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Do French women need feminism?


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And overall, the World Economic Forum's index puts France at 57 of 135 countries in terms of gender equality, falling in ranking from the year before. It sits well behind the Scandinavian countries, all in the Top 10, as well as behind Germany, Ireland, Spain, and the US.

Yet the fallout from the Strauss-Kahn case, while a nadir, has also been a turning point. In August, the country passed a new sexual harassment law that raises fines to €30,000 (nearly $40,000, double the previous fine) and expands the definition of what constitutes harassment. Before, it was limited to an act "with the goal of obtaining favors of sexual nature."

Today, harassment is defined as "imposing on somebody, in a repeated way, words or behaviors with a sexual connotation that either undermine one's dignity because of their degrading or humiliating nature, or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive situation."

In one case that Ms. Baldeck's group represented, a female employee accused a male colleague of repeated sexual harassment, including an attempt to tuck a pencil between her buttocks. The judge in the case, in 2008, ruled against her. "Even if the words, actions, and gesture of [the defendant] could be judged as inadmissible, crude, rude, seen as obscene, they do not constitute moral or sexual harassment," the presiding judge wrote. Baldeck won on appeal, but says that she'd never have lost in the first place in today's environment. In fact, she says the number of cases they deal with in any given year – 400 – is up from the average of 300 before the Strauss-Kahn case forced sexual harassment into the public consciousness.

Mr. Hollande, in addition to introducing gender parity in his cabinet, has also reopened a women's rights ministry – after it was shuttered for almost 30 years – and by sending his ministers to sexism-education class, he has underlined his commitment to equality, his administration says.

"It is simply to take some time to think about inequalities between men and women, their origins, the reason that it is sometimes difficult to change mentalities and thus behaviors," writes Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister for women's rights, in an e-mail. "It is about giving them the keys, the tools, for politicians to integrate women's rights as an automatic extension of their political work."

'La Barbe' strikes a feminist blow with wit

But feminist groups say there is far more to be done. One group called La Barbe – meaning "The Beard" in English but also a pun as an old French expression that means "bummer" – was founded in 2008 after a French female candidate from a mainstream party was fielded for the 2007 presidential election, leading to a barrage of public chauvinism. "We want to fight men's monopoly in power places," says Clémentine Pirlot, a gender studies student and active member of the group.

While La Barbe's intentions are very serious, it carries out its activism with a dose of humor and sarcasm. In November, Ms. Pirlot attended an economic conference with a group of women, where 14 speakers were scheduled to talk and all 14 were men. As is La Barbe's routine, about 20 minutes into the conference, Pirlot stood up and put on a homemade beard – "always with dignity," she says – and read out sarcastic remarks like, "Congratulations! There are no women here."

Pirlot carries a beard or two in her purse always. "You never know when you'll need it," she says. Often the bearded women are treated with respect, but at times their targets are hostile, even as they become a more common fixture on the Parisian landscape. One waiter at a cafe in downtown Paris sees Pirlot with her beard on and says, "Yeah, La Barbe!"

Baldeck says that these days in Paris one can attend a feminist event any day of the week and that the movement has been renewed by thousands of young women.

At Osez le Féminisme, the group has grown in three years to 1,500 members with 11 committees around the country, taking on everything from sex education to abortion to wage equality. Ms. Mailfert measures success in the reaction her job description generates.

"I think one of our main achievements," she says, "is that it is now not that taboo to say you are a feminist."


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